Japan's ageing population threatens its scientific and technological
pre-eminence, says the leading science journal Nature in a blistering
editorial (July 9). In May last year, a government white paper warned that
increasing international competition, especially from China, and older
work force at home, Japan might "be forced out of the ranks of major
international players and will risk losing [its] current plentiful and
stable lifestyle". The outlook for Japanese science is grim.

"Between 1998 and 2007, the number of researchers in universities
rose by 15%, from 146,000 to 168,000. But in the same period, the
number of researchers younger than 37 years old shrank from 36,773 to
35,788, and now only account for 21% of the total. The future is
bleaker. The number of university students who want to study science
and engineering plummeted from roughly 1 million in 1992 to around
630,000 in 2008. How much longer can Japan afford to lose the talent
that its system is either chewing up or simply not developing
properly?"

One way of compensating for its ageing workforce is to attract
foreigners. But formidable linguistic and cultural barriers make it
difficult to draw scientists from overseas. Only 10% of PhDs from
Japanese universities go to foreigners (compared with 42% in the US and
41% in the UK). Only 1.34% of scientists at Japan's universities and
research institutes are foreigners. Contact with other countries is
essential to prevent stagnation, but young Japanese scientists are
homebodies. According to another white paper released last month, only
2% of Japanese researchers plan to work overseas. "As international
competition for scientific talent intensifies, Japan is closing in on
itself," warns Nature.

The government is aware of the problem and has some innovative
policies. Kyoto University is trying to have one-third of positions
for young scientists filled by women and half by foreigners. In
Yokohama it is building a a ¥9.5-billion (US$100-million) science high
school. Nearly 30 institutions have tenure-track systems offering
independence to younger scientists. But with fewer and fewer young people, there are bound to be fewer young
scientists.

"With little hope for a massive influx of creative thinkers from
outside, Japan needs to fix the system that frowns on giving
professorships and other opportunities to young independent scientists.
How much longer can Japan afford to lose the talent that its system is
either chewing up or simply not developing properly? In its chronic
failure to provide sufficient incentives and support for young
researchers' independence, Japan as a scientific power is marching
right past its tipping point."

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.